The first time I visited Egypt, I was struck by a notice above a sink in a hotel in the Red Sea port of Hurghada.
We live in a desert. Please don’t waste water.
I’ve never forgotten that sign and, just 18 short years later, I’ve taken action and stopped taking showers.
Or rather: I’ve stopped taking showers a bit. Like the guy I met last week who was doing ‘a bit of dry January’. He told me this in the pub. With a pint in his hand.
In the last 10 days, I’ve had 3 proper showers. Normally, I’d have had at least 10 – without really thinking about it.
Avid followers of The Charles Offensive will suspect that No Showers sounds a lot like one of my famous positive constraints.
Although I haven’t been as strict as I would be with a true positive constraint, this experiment certainly bears their most important characteristic: challenging thoughtless patterns of behaviour.
Not doing what I’ve done almost every day for the past 25 years forces me to answer questions that go deep into my psychology and ecology:
- Why, for the last 25 years at least, have I taken a daily shower?
- Is daily showering strictly necessary?
- What are the consequences of daily showering for my mind, my body and the rest of the planet?
- What could I stand to gain from not showering every day?
- What alternatives are there to daily showering?
Why do I take a daily shower?
The simple answer is habit.
I’ve conditioned myself to feel ‘a bit gross’ if I don’t have my daily shower: it keeps me clean and wakes me up. But these are easily divorced from the gush of water from a pipe in the wall.
It is true that water on the face helps humans become alert. Nothing says WAKE THE FUCK UP! like the imminent threat of drowning.
But there are plenty of ways of getting water to face in the morning. My personal favourite is jumping in the sea, but even a wet flannel will do the job.
In fact, the best wake up call is cold water so my hot shower isn’t even optimal in that respect.
Staying clean isn’t even best done with a 5 minute hot shower either. Stripping our skins of our natural oils every day isn’t necessarily conducive to a healthy microbiome – the bacteria, viruses and fungi that live in our glands and hair follicles and on our skin.
The New York Times has a story about David Whitlock, a chemical engineer who hasn’t showered for 12 years: He occasionally takes a sponge bath to wash away grime but trusts his skin’s bacterial colony to do the rest.
And, according to journalist Julia Scott, he doesn’t smell.
After a few days without a shower, however, I do. Not crazy bad – nobody swerves to avoid me on the street – but I do fail a pit sniff test. Perhaps I’m expecting too much, too soon from my surprised microbiome.
It doesn’t help that I don’t have any glorious rivers or waterfalls that I can jump into. Instead, I’m measuring out a litre of water into a bucket and using a flannel to wash. Side note: aren’t flannels great?
After a week of insipid bucket washes, I don’t feel like I’m really doing this experiment justice. I’ve only learned one thing for sure: showers aren’t necessary, but they are one heck of an aesthetic pleasure. That gushing water? It feels amazing!
I console myself with the feeling that every skipped shower saves the planet from needless water wastage. Doesn’t it?
What about the environment?
My shower takes just 10 seconds to spurt out a litre of water. The shortest shower I took in the last 10 days was 3 minutes and 30 seconds, which guzzled 21 litres of water.
According to the Guardian, the average shower lasts seven minutes and uses 65 litres of water.
Both these numbers sound – to me, at least – huge. Even if I was only taking those short showers every day then I’d still be flushing 7,665 litres of water down the drain every year.
This is where it gets controversial because those numbers are, in fact, tiny.
Miniscule. Infinitesimal. Minute.
According to a 2008 WWF report on the UK Water Footprint (PDF here), household water use including showers, but also including washing machines, toilets, kitchen sinks and hose pipes, makes up just 3% of our total water use.
Showers contribute perhaps 0.5% of my personal water footprint.
Most of the water we ‘drink’ is embedded in the food we eat: producing 1 kilo of beef for example consumes 15,000 litres of water while 1 kilo of wheat ‘drinks up’ 1,500 litres. (WWF)
In their summary of actions that we can take to reduce water consumption, WWF conclude:
As a consumer you can ask businesses, including your local supermarkets, to tell you what they are doing to ensure good water management along their supply chains. Everyone can help by reducing food waste. As a citizen you can urge your government to make good water management a priority both in this country and overseas.
Note that they say, Everyone can help by reducing food waste – not water waste. Household water waste isn’t mentioned at all in their summary of the most important actions we can take because it is a relatively insignificant contributor to our personal water footprint.
So what are our alternatives to the daily shower?
- Go vegan, or at least stop eating meat. A 200g beef steak saps about 3,000 litres of water; a nice lamb cutlet drinks 2,000 litres, a pork chop more like 1,200 litres, a goat curry would be about 1,100 litres and a chicken supreme around 850ml. (SOURCE)
- Stop buying new cotton clothes and bedsheets. Cotton sucks up 9,114 litres for every kilogram of product. (SOURCE, as above)
- Drink from the tap. It takes at least twice as much water to produce a plastic water bottle as the amount of water contained in the bottle. (SOURCE)
- Recycle paper and plastic. Recycling the equivalent of a typical newspaper saves 16 litres of water. (SOURCE, as above)
- Don’t buy cheap consumer goods, buy quality that will last. Chucking stuff away is chucking away water.
- Don’t waste electricity. Power stations use up to 168 litres of water per kilowatt-hour of electricity they generate, depending on how they’re cooled. (SOURCE: Table 1)
In the course of writing this email, for example, my laptop has wasted as much as 16 litres of water. You can see now why showers are considered pretty small fry…
But if you’re still up for changing your shower routine – and I’d always support that sort of thing – then you could:
- Time yourself in the shower and challenge yourself to keep it below 3 minutes.
- Turn off the tap while you scrub.
- Capture your used shower water and reuse it to water your plants (if you don’t use soap) or flush your toilet (if you do).
- If you want a really long shower, run a bath instead. A bath takes about 100 litres, so the equivalent of a 16 minute shower.
- Fill a litre measuring jug and use no more than that. I found I could do a good job with a flannel and about 500ml of water.
Check out Rob Greenfield, who lived for (at least) two years without taking a conventional shower. From his photos, it looks like he had a much better time than me, frolicking in rivers, lakes, waterfalls, torrential rain and leaky fire hydrants. Not a bucket in sight.
Rob reckons he managed to conserve about 23,000 litres of water in that time. This is clearly awesome, but even he says:
Rather than giving up showering for a year you could just pass on six hamburgers. That seems a lot easier to me.
I guess that’s why there’s this Veganuary thing going on right now.